There seems to be a lot of environmental buzzwords out there, but what exactly is sustainability and how does it affect our planet and conservation efforts?
In essence, to sustain is to continue our capacity to live life on this planet — to endure — but seeing as that definition doesn't quite encompass the full meaning behind environmental sustainability, it's important to look at the ways different organizations and experts view the topic.
What Is Sustainability?
A walk on the beach or a hike in the woods can remind us all that our forests, our coral reefs, and even our desserts are examples of sustainable systems. Oxygen, nitrogen and carbon are all regenerated and redistributed in invisible chemical cycles throughout the world’s living (and not-so-living) systems, sustaining and adapting life since it first emerged.
When it comes to environmental sustainability, governments, industry, non-profits, environmental agencies and different countries all have different definitions and approaches to what it means, here we look at a few key definitions:
Definition No.1: Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
This is the definition of sustainability as created by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, though it should be noted that this definition provided by the UN is not universally accepted.
It’s a pretty standard definition that has been expanded over the years to include views on human needs and well-being (including non-economic variables, such as education and health, clean air and water, and the protection of natural beauty). It is clear that the potential of our long-term viability of well being on this planet has to do with our maintenance of the natural world and its natural resources.
Definition, No.2: Sustainability is the capacity to improve the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the Earth’s supporting eco-systems.
This definition has been provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whose work is driven by the fact that global production and consumption patterns are destroying nature at persistent and dangerously high rates.
As populations have increased and we have relied on the earth's natural resources such as minerals, petroleum, coal, gas and so on, the earth's natural ecosystems and creatures (from birds, to insects to mammals) have declined. We have changed the sacred balance of nature as environmentalist David Suzuki puts it, which has had a negative impact on both humans and other living systems.
Definition, No.3: Sustainability is about stabilizing the currently disruptive relationship between earth’s two most complex systems—human culture and the living world.
This definition of sustainability was provided by another environmentalist, Paul Hawken, who has written about the realization (and the science behind it) that we are using and destroying the earth's resources faster than they can be regenerated and replenished.
What Can Be Done?
All of these definitions leads us to even more questions. For example, what if we, as an evolutionary species, changed the way we live, love, learn and conduct business on this planet? Is it possible to utilize business as the catalyzing force behind this change? What if we acknowledge that financial success can be tied to ecological and societal success, and the other way around?
The ways in which we can all live more sustainably can take many forms, such as: